Michael Leckrone: Band Director as Project Manager

Conductor

Michael Leckrone, director of the University of Wisconsin Marching Band—year after year, one of the top marching bands in the country—will retire this spring after 50 years on the job. Throughout his distinguished career, Leckrone relied on an array of project management tools and practices to manage the 300-member band and 50-member support staff. As a team, they put together over a dozen Big Ten half-time shows each season, plus pre- and post-game shows, and numerous concerts and parades throughout the year. These productions were resounding successes, earning Leckrone the admiration, trust, appreciation, and love of his band members and assistants. So what’s the secret to building such trust and authority? The late Alexander Laufer, author of seven books on project management, sat down with Leckrone to learn about his leadership style. This article summarizes some essential practices, drawn from Laufer’s interviews with Leckrone.

The Show Must Go On

First and foremost, Leckrone emphasizes a dedication to the objective. Leckrone has never been content to deliver the same show week after week. Throughout his career, he instead opted to create an entirely new performance for each game, with unique musical arrangements and on-the-field choreography every time. That makes for a clear project goal. In Leckrone’s words, “You have to learn a 10- or 11-minute pre-game show from scratch. And you have to learn an 8- to 10-minute-long halftime show from scratch. And that all has to be done in eight hours of rehearsal time. ” The band, eager to please the 80,000 fans awaiting them on game day, has 100% buy-in for this goal and for the total cooperation and coordination necessary to complete it.

Doing More

So the pressure is on to get the performance right, with practice held in sun, rain, and snow. Throughout, Leckrone imposes relentlessly high standards. He demands precision in the music and in the movements of the band members. At the beginning of every season, students have to try out for a position in the band. “We make it very clear, ” says Leckrone, “that if you were in the band the previous year, you’re not guaranteed a spot. ” And those initial practices before the beginning of the academic year are, in Leckrone’s words, “arduous enough that they realize that this is an expectation; you’re going to have to work this hard all year long. ” Indeed, practice can be grueling and downright miserable at times. But Leckrone is famous for his tough encouragement. “If it was easy, ” he’s fond of saying, “anybody could do it. ” He pushes his band to attain the perfect show, and he reminds them that “to be excellent requires a great deal of focus and energy. ” The band members soon become familiar with his other mantras: “The will to succeed is nothing without the will to prepare, ” “You can’t quit when you’re tired, ” and “Pain is temporary, but pride is forever. ” Band members often write to Leckrone after they’ve graduated, saying things like, “One thing you taught us is that we’re capable of doing more than we thought we were able to do. ”

Fatherly Leadership

While pushing them toward excellence, Leckrone also makes sure to connect with his team. By the end of the first week of the season, he knows all their names. And what’s more, he makes sure they all know each other. He’ll sometimes stop a rehearsal and ask random band members whether they know the people around them. And if they don’t, he says, “Well you better learn their names because you’re going to depend on that person. That person will help you if you need it, and if you don’t know a name, you’re not going to be able to say, ‚ÄòHey Joe, where do we go next?’ ” Leckrone also understands that success has to be recognized as much as failure. In the long run, success is more motivating than falling short. “You don’t live on the moments of disappointment—the moments of frustration, ” he says. “You live on moments of happiness. ” He makes sure to praise those doing particularly well. But he’s also sure to clarify for his team that his criticism is in the service of the project goal—improving the upcoming performance. “I’m going to criticize you, ” he tells his band. “Prepare to take it and do something about it. ” There’s definitely a fatherly quality to Leckrone’s leadership. Leckrone’s father was his band director in high school, in fact, and young Mike learned to take criticism in its most altruistic form: intended by a father to help a son improve.

It’s About the Band

A large part of Leckrone’s success comes from setting aside his ego. He understands that he’s in a position that tempts people to pride: “the problem with us band directors is that we all have egos and we all want to come in and do our own thing. ” He tells his band members and field assistants over and over again, “It’s about the band. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about the band and what’s in the best interest of the band. ” He’s also sure to solicit feedback constantly. “If you work for me, ” he says, “the one thing you cannot become is a ‚Äòyes’ person. If you’re not happy with something I do and you don’t tell me about it, I’ll call you out on it when I find out that you had some objection. ” He extends this policy not just to his assistant director and his crew of field assistants, but also to students in the band. Leckrone shows the unique combination of being both demanding and nurturing, goal-driven but open to change. And those are the marks of a truly effective project manager.

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Jeffrey S. Russell

Jeffrey S. Russell is Vice Provost for Lifelong Learning, Dean of Continuing Studies, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Executive Director of the Consortium for Project Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He collaborated with the late Alexander Laufer on Becoming a Project Leader (Palgrave 2018), co-written with Terry Little and Bruce Maas.